Ozark Natural Foods
Year founded: 1971
Member investment: $140
Number of members: 9,300
Number of staff: 97
Retail square feet: 9,000
Ozark Natural Foods had a legacy of internal conflict and high board turnover. Historically, people didn’t necessarily run for the board because they wanted to serve the membership, but wanted to use the board as a platform for promoting their own individual interests. The conflicts that arose made board service a chore for everyone, and the board experienced a continual cycle of disgruntled board members and turnover.
This began to change when the board began to discuss how to improve its board nominations process. Joshua Youngblood, Ozark’s president of the board, didn’t mince words about the past; “It was bad.” It was one of the first things he set about doing as the co-op’s newly elected board president five years ago. He noted there was no process for understanding a nominee’s qualifications, no interviews or orientations, no questions posed, and no information disseminated for co-op owners before the board vote. By improving the recruitment and nominations process, Youngblood believed that some of the issues plaguing the board could be met with clear expectations about the governance role from the very beginning.
Youngblood had prior experience as the board president at New Leaf Market in Tallahassee, Fla. and worked with CBLD consultant, Thane Joyal, to address some of the issues facing Ozark. “We needed to have a better grasp of fiduciary responsibility, confidentiality and understanding of the obligations of the bylaws,” Youngblood said. “Thane was really integral in my ability to make strong decisions and good strategic moves.”
Joyal assisted Youngblood with his priority to set up a nominations system designed to allow Ozark to find people with desired attributes. This included technical considerations like being a member in good standing and could abide by the co-op’s bylaws, as well as dedication to the Co-op Principles and the success of Ozark Natural Foods. Other desired attributes included good communication skills, willingness to spend the time serving, commitment to the board’s role and understanding of policy governance, and support the general manager in work directed by the board. “We were trying to regularize our system to give owners and staff confidence in who runs for the board and is elected,” Youngblood said.
Part of the early nominations process was also to educate nominees about the board’s governance process so any single-issue candidates understood they might not be successfully nominated by the board. They’ve also made board nominations a more public activity at the co-op, inviting owners to participate in cafe-style events. This past year the Ozark Food Co-op board also held a board recruitment dinner. “We were very open regarding expectations about board member performance,” Youngblood said. The board also developed a packet of information for nominees and a request for a 300-word candidate statement that is published on the co-op’s blog and newsletter, along with a photo. Candidates that are not nominated by the board can petition the members to be a candidate, and consideration is made for them to be sure they get in the newsletter and on the ballot, too.
The approach has led to a big change in the quality of board candidates as well as overall better process in the board room. Turnover has reduced. “We’ve moved past contentiousness to more positive, open communication. And we’ve tapped more energy and professional talent,” he said. Good recruitment makes the board better.